Much ink, digital and otherwise, is spilled among both real-life historians and fictional worldbuilders on the rise and fall of civilizations, but somewhat less ink is spent on drilling down to the basics of civilization, namely the resource base. This includes things such as building materials and fuel, but perhaps most critically also includes the food supply. This is usually, but intriguingly not necessarily, associated with agriculture.
Thinking about worldbuilding a civilization in this manner can lead to some interesting results when compared to simply reusing what real history offers. In this post we will explore an outline of one such scenario, which doesn’t have much to do with agriculture at first but has very important knock-on effects.
Civilization without Agriculture
Agriculture is often thought as a prerequisite for a settled (or sedentary) society dense enough to enable an economic division of labor far more complex than the primordial sexual division to arise, but this isn’t always true. Several regions of the world are rich enough in wild foodstuffs to support agricultural-style population densities by hunting and gathering. Japan before the introduction of rice farming is perhaps the most famous example, but here we will focus on the indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America, who will be called “Cascadians” in this post for brevity’s sake, after an alternate name for the same region.
Both Japanese and Cascadian cultures, interestingly, relied heavily upon fishing, and sedentism and population density were sufficiently developed in Cascadia to enable tribes, chiefs, raids, slavery, villages, and towns; all the virtues and vices of what we call civilization, even if not remotely near the hydraulic oppression of the likes of Pharaonic Egypt, were there. Of all the hunter-gatherer cultures, Cascadia probably had the best shot at developing into a high civilization. Japan, the other historical standout, is close to China, the center of rice farming, and is good farming country, making it unlikely the hunting-fishing-gathering lifestyle will last indefinitely in any event. By contrast, the nearest agricultural center to Cascadia was Mexico, whose crop package could not be grown in the Cascadian climate. Even today Cascadia is not exactly an agricultural powerhouse; fishing and logging are more important industries.
Given developments into a more advanced civilization, Cascadia would likely retain its hunter-gatherer character for a very long time. Taking inspiration from the very good “Bronze Age New World” alternate timeline, let us posit that sometime in the second millennium BC metalworking is developed by the indigenous Cascadians, leading to a bronze age, catapulting them out of using stone as the strongest building and working material. This incidentally would make them the most advanced in the New World, with the possible exception of the Great Lakes nations that were using native copper and iron. In a few more centuries let us suppose that working with bronze ultimately gives way to working with iron, entering the Iron Age very early compared to most of the world. This might seem like a rapid development, but historically sub-Saharan Africa more or less skipped bronze altogether and went straight into working with iron. Replicating this development in Cascadia doesn’t seem like a stretch.
Let us also posit advances by the Cascadian cultural sphere in maritime technology. This will prove the most critical, since as I pointed out in a previous post transportation can substitute for population density. If sail technology could be developed, much larger ships could be built and deployed, and transportation would become far faster and more efficient. Note that the indigenous Cascadians were no slouches in real life when it comes to seafaring; the Haida, sometimes called the Vikings of North America for their raiding prowess, transported themselves as far afield as southern Mexico with canoes. Imagine how much further the Haida could have gone and how much more cargo and personnel they could have transported if they had sailing ships.
High-seas navigation, where you can plot your course and fix your position without having to hug the coast and observe the land-forms, is the logical next step but requires more advancements to attain. The Greeks during the Hellenistic period apparently had developed high-seas navigation, though, so it’s certainly possible for an antiquity-level civilization to have it. The Polynesians had a more primitive but arguably more impressive version of high-seas navigation, which they used to colonize the South Pacific. High seas navigation enables a culture to explore far from shore, discovering outlying islands to colonize, new fishing grounds (particularly important for a fishing culture like Cascadia), new ocean currents that can help future navigational efforts, and even entire new continents.
In the Cascadian case, there actually isn’t an abundance of land that is just offshore; sailing will be north-south along the Pacific Coast of the Americas for a long time. The first real use of high-seas navigation to find new lands will be when ships veer away from the Alaskan coast and find the Aleutian Islands and Chukotka (the easternmost extension of Siberia). Ironically this might mean that New World explorers in sailing ships will discover the Old World before the Old World discovers them. What we call the Old World would be a new world for them.
Sailing around the coast of Alaska through the Bering Strait will lead them to access the Northwest and Northeast Passages, granting maritime ingress into the great Siberian and Canadian rivers. Where the high-seas navigating will really start to take off, though, is in rounding Cape Horn and circumnavigating Antarctica. Taking advantage of the high and reliable winds in the subantarctic will enable global fast travel to any part of the southern hemisphere. Antarctica will almost certainly be one of the first continents discovered by a Cascadian high-seas sailing culture. New Zealand would follow, and Australia after that. Africa and Europe would be the last continents to be discovered, as they are the furthest by sea from the West Coast of the Americas. All of this will take centuries if not over a millennium to unfold, probably sometime in the first millennium BC.
Back to the basics of civilization, a cultural sphere developing to this extent greatly increases the chance that writing will be invented, and it is very plausible to posit that writing could also be developed independently. Totem poles, among other artifacts, have a rich and diverse array of symbols on them, and it is easy to imagine these symbols evolving into a writing system. While it would almost certainly be logographic (like Chinese) at first, Cascadia is one of the most linguistically diverse areas of the world. Trade languages like Chinook Jargon weren’t widely adopted in the region in more recent centuries for no reason, after all. This development in civilization will greatly stimulate the spread of trade languages and also I believe the independent development of the alphabetic principle. If there is any context in which a phonetic alphabet would be invented quickly it is the incredible diversity of the Pacific Northwest.
The development of advanced maritime technology will enable trade routes to be established within Cascadia and also with adjoining regions. The Olmec, the mother culture of Mexico, were already around during this era and have the largest population and economy, even if in our scenario they don’t have the most advanced technology or the highest living standards. Establishing intense trade with Mexico will be a priority for seafaring Cascadian civilization. Looking north, already-existing close ties with southern Alaska will be intensified, and the tin reserves of the Seward Peninsula will be exploited to make bronze, especially earlier in the civilization’s development.
In time the trade network will extend past Mexico and into South America, where trade will commence with the Norte Chico and/or subsequent Andean cultures. The Eskimo peoples will also become very well-integrated with this network over time, given the rich resources in their waters and their knowledge of how to extract them. The Arctic hunting cultures would probably be prime recruits for a high-seas sailing crew, given that they are more accustomed to long sea expeditions under harsh conditions. These people will dominate Cascadian exploration and exploitation of the southern polar regions once the time comes for that.
Cascadia rules the Waves
Trade is to some extent the mother’s milk of technological advancement; if different nations can pool their scientific and technological talent and adopt innovations from each other, the whole network advances further. This is a factor that was not working in native Americans’ favor in real life, but with large sophisticated sailing ships traversing the West Coast from Cape Horn to the Aleutians, innovations from all the Pacific cultures will rapidly diffuse across the region. This will stimulate even further advancement.
Diffusion will also spread beyond the Pacific coast; portage across central America is relatively easy, after all, and this grants access to the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, by taking the same routes European fur trappers did in interior North America but in the other direction (west to east instead of east to west), Cascadians will establish trade routes and diffuse innovation eastward across the continent. Metal-working will spread across North America given several centuries to around a millennium. Fishermen, whalers, and fur trappers will penetrate deep into Canada and also establish a presence in the North Pacific.
Over even longer timescales colonization might take place in the Valdivian temperate rainforest, in what is now central and southern Chile; it is a similar environment to the Cascadians’ home region but is much less populated than Cascadia will become. Transportation would be easy enough considering that whaling and sealing traffic into the Antarctic will be abundant.
Cascadia rules the World?
If this maritime juggernaut continues unopposed, eventually emigration, colonization, and economic domination, as well as development for the native peoples, will occur across the world. Through international and overseas trade far more advanced than anyone else can bring to bear Cascadians will attain a dominant position in the global economy despite making up a tiny fraction of its population. This might lead to a situation much like the Portuguese in the fifteenth and sixteenth century but on a more massive scale; Portuguese for a long time was the lingua franca of the Indian Ocean region despite Portuguese people being a tiny minority. While the Portuguese first-mover advantage was quickly surpassed by Spain, there may be no great rival to the Cascadian domination.
This might even persist into the time modern technology evolves; given an early shock of globalization and consequent acceleration of technology an earlier industrial revolution becomes not only possible but even likely. Where this occurs is an open question, but several places in the Cascadian region itself, among them the Salish Sea, the British Columbia coast, northwest Alaska, and especially the Canadian Rockies, are possibilities. This could enhance Cascadian dominance still further, much as it did for the British Empire in real life. Indeed, such a scenario may well be the best, most plausible, and most interesting way to achieve a world dominated by indigenous Americans in an alternate history.
What sort of technology and culture might evolve in such a world is an open question and a fascinating one to explore in various alternate timelines, but one aspect we will explore now is potential domestications of animals and even plants that could take place.
Fearsome and Exotic Mounts
Famously, the North American megafauna were either hunted to extinction, succumbed to climate change, or a combination of both, which is thought to have doomed indigenous cultures to having the dog and the llama as the domesticated animals of choice, but this isn’t entirely true. The moose and the muskox are still around, but are native to the northern part of North America. This is conveniently close to Cascadia, so domestication of either of those species cannot be ruled out.
The moose would appear to be the stronger candidate for domestication, though, considering that northeastern European peoples domesticated it without too much trouble in the second millennium AD. While moose ultimately did not attain a large role in Eurasian societies, a separate domestication event in North America is certainly possible. Another possibility would be for whatever power spreads across Siberia in this timeline to bring domesticated moose with them when they first meet Cascadians in the North Pacific. This power would have to spread 2000 years earlier than the Russians did in real life, and a Finnic culture colonizing Siberia in the context of more advanced development in Europe is by far the most likely scenario. This is because Slavic peoples weren’t anywhere near the major fur trade routes into Siberia in the era we’re exploring. By the time this happens the llama would almost certainly have been introduced into North America, but the moose might displace much of the llama’s economic niche nevertheless.
A further-out possibility would be the moa of New Zealand or the elephant bird of Madagascar. Neither island was yet inhabited by man in the second or first millennium BC, and thus those giant birds had not yet been hunted to extinction. This raises the possibility of domestication of one or both of those species. Cavalry, meat, eggs, clothing, draft labor, and terrorizing military opponents are all uses of these birds. Unlike any modern bird, both the elephant bird and the giant moa are large enough to carry a man. The giant moa in particular would be a formidable sight as it was twelve feet tall. The elephant bird is heavier than the moa but stood a mere ten feet tall. Between the moose, which makes the horse look like a pipsqueak, and these monstrous birds Cascadians, and by diffusion most other New World cultures, will have some fearsome mounts.
California in a Cascadian World
The impact of this incipient eastern Pacific civilization won’t be confined to Cascadia and the pre-existing centers of civilization, but might stimulate development elsewhere. California stands out as being another clement environment for hunter-gatherers, though not nearly as rich as Cascadia, and would stand to benefit greatly from the soaproot trade. As the name suggests soaproot is a plant that produces soap; the juices of the plant’s bulb contains sapponins that when mixed with water creates a lather that can be used for cleaning. It was particularly popular for washing the hair. Seeing as the process for making soap in the Old World, which didn’t have any such plant available, was difficult and laborious, Californian soaproot will spread far and wide to every corner of the Pacific trade network. It will prove particularly useful for sailors.
In addition, it can be used as a sealant or glue, processed into a fish poison, or eaten by human beings after cooking (to destroy the poisonous chemicals in it). A member of the Donner Party ate some that the natives gave him in 1847 and commented that it tasted like sweet potatoes. It even has medicinal uses, ranging from a laxative, to a diuretic, to an antiseptic.
Certainly it’s a versatile plant, and as one in high demand the trade might prompt the native Californians to deliberately cultivate the soaproot as a cash crop. This isn’t true agriculturalism, since it doesn’t form part of their subsistence strategy, but soaproot exporting combined with technologies and goods from Cascadia, Mexico, and beyond will turbocharge the Californian standard of living in this timeline.
Mesquite: A Desert Southwest Civilization Engine?
Another possibility that has been raised in a separate context is the deliberate cultivation and domestication of the mesquite tree. Native to the Desert Southwest of North America, the mesquite tree is probably best known as a source of good firewood, but it also yields edible food in the form of pods. These pods form a staple of the indigenous diet in the region, but for whatever reason were never domesticated in real life. We could posit, especially in the presence of a more active wide-scale civilization transmitting innovative concepts to the natives, that in an alternate timeline a domestication event could have occurred.
Mesquite has advantages as a crop; compared to any other staple crop, especially the corn the Mexicans use in this era, it requires very little labor and thus would be attractive to the hunter-gatherer mentality. The lower labor required also frees up more time to hunt and gather the rest of their diet, since man cannot live on mesquite bread alone. With simple irrigation, the lower Colorado river valley may become an independent center of agriculture. Irrigation salinates the soil over the time, which arguably is what brought down later civilizations in the region, but conveniently mesquite is tolerant of brackish conditions.
Despite requiring hunting and gathering to complete their diet, mesquite nevertheless would provide enough agricultural productivity to enable population densities ten to twenty times higher than hunting and gathering according to my best guess. This would be just enough to enable a small civilization with a settled society and division of labor to emerge in the lower Colorado. When I say small I mean small: this civilization’s total population would only be around ten thousand.
While ten thousand people is a small fraction of Mexico’s at the time, the much greater leisure time in the desert implies much higher living standards and hence a culture that can punch well above its weight when it comes to exerting influence.
Over longer periods, the lower Colorado civilization might zero in on nipa grass as another crop; like mesquite it is an edible perennial plant requiring little labor, and it grows in saltwater, conveniently including delta areas otherwise not amenable to agriculture. Due to these almost unique properties, nipa grass is in fact currently being studied as a future food crop by scientists, so the potential in an alternate timeline would seem to be there.
We see here in this exploration that an alternate timeline involving supercharging civilization’s development in the Americas even very late in the game (compared to Eurasian civilization) is very plausible. The way for an alternate historian or worldbuilder to do this would be to take advantage of the fact that Cascadia is rich enough in wild foodstuffs to not need domestication of plants or animals to jump-start civilization, and is ideally suited to developing the sort of maritime transportation capable of uniting the Americas in a vast trade network diffusing technology and ideas.
Indeed if started early enough, like in the second millennium BC, it could even lead to indigenous American culture dominating the world much like Western culture has in real life, albeit without the large ethnic population base Western culture has (or had) going for it. The hunting and gathering base of this scenario mean that it could in principle be pushed back much further in time; the Haida’s ancestors first arrived in the region 14000-19000 years ago, before the end of the last glacial period, although no trees arrived on Haida Gwaii until 7500 years ago. More southerly cultures in the same sphere, however, could have taken up the torch we have given to the Haida in this scenario.
Thus with stupendous luck in developing early, the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest could even have become the mother culture of the modern world, with the industrial revolution and our technology coming into full flower thousands of years before Mesopotamia even had the first writing in our history.
There are other sites on the Earth that may have accomplished this too, with Japan being the most obvious candidate. Generally temperate rainforests would be the hot spot for these sort of civilizations developing, as they have the richest food supply for hunter-gatherers. Indeed, had the agricultural revolution never happened it wouldn’t surprise me to see these temperate rainforests, especially coastal ones close to maritime trade, be the centers of post-Paleolithic-level technological innovation. This would be a stark change from real life, where it was river valleys in deserts that proved to be the most technologically advanced cultures. This provides almost limitless fodder for alternate histories.
Of course a timeline where one culture outclasses all others and takes over is rather dull, except if it splits into many warring factions like the Mongols, the Greeks, or the Romans did. So for maximum impact, and for the sake of familiarity to present-day audiences, it might be best to couple this scenario with accelerating the development of an Old World culture, Greece and China being the most promising and best-known contenders. A second millennium BC point of departure would be fruitful for this, as this was when Greece was in its formative Mycenaean period. Avoiding the Late Bronze Age collapse and the subsequent Greek Dark Ages would accelerate Western civilization’s development by perhaps five centuries while still being recognizably Western, a promising scenario for any alternate history worldbuilder that happens to be a fan of ancient Greece.
The encounters between these accelerated civilizations would be fascinating, and one can even turbocharge the development of the whole world without stretching plausibility too much, leading to a modern or late pre-modern-style context but with cultures we know and love from ancient history. All of these premises are hardly ever executed, so audiences of alternate history have not seen these scenarios done to death. These sort of settings would be a great place for any story, work of art, or raw alternate history timeline, and I can recommend them without reservation as being among the best sort of alternate history worlds that could be built.